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Lead poisoning blamed for deaths of three California condors in Arizona

February 23, 2010 |  7:24 pm

Condors

Three rare California condors in northern Arizona died last month because they ingested lead pellets while feeding on carrion, according to test results released Monday.

The deaths from lead poisoning are the first in three years among condors in Arizona and Utah, condor recovery program officials said. The Peregrine Fund recovered the bodies of a female condor and her year-old chick from the Grand Canyon and a young male from the Arizona-Utah border last month.

That the birds were foraging in southern Utah presents a challenge for recovery program officials, who now must convince hunters there to stop using lead ammunition.

"We have to remain optimistic because we've seen such progress in Arizona, and I guess what it means is we have more work to do," said Chris Parish, who oversees the release of the condors in Arizona for the fund.

Utah already is educating hunters about the effects that lead ammunition has on condors. The birds feed on dead animals, often big game killed by hunters or the entrails left behind when they are field dressed.

High levels of lead can shut down a condor's digestive system, causing them to starve to death.

Utah's program is modeled after one in Arizona, which asks hunters to voluntarily use lead-free ammunition. Utah plans to give coupons for free non-lead ammunition to hunters in certain areas.

"Utah sportsmen are conservation-minded," Jim Parrish, nongame avian coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said in a release. "We're confident they'll step up to the challenge and that our program, combined with the highly successful program in Arizona, will keep the condor population healthy and allow it to grow."

Condors once numbered in the thousands across North America but were nearly extinct by the early 1980s from the effects of hunting, lead poisoning and habitat encroachment. The final 22 were captured in California and a breeding program was started.

There are about 350 condors alive today, with about half in captive breeding programs in California, Arizona and Mexico.

Since the reintroduction program begin in Arizona in 1996, 45 condors have died -- 15 of them from lead poisoning.

Environmental groups pushed for a nationwide ban on lead ammunition, similar to regulations in place in California.

Jeff Miller of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity said the Arizona population continually is exposed to high levels of lead and it was just a matter of time before some ate enough to be killed.

"It's tragic, but it was predictable," he said. "Until we come up with an effective way to keep lead out of the food chain, we're going to keep seeing these periodic tragic events."

Kathy Sullivan, condor program coordinator for Arizona's Department of Game and Fish, said the state's program had a success rate between 80% and 90% over three years. The true test, she said, is in whether Utah hunters join the voluntary effort.

"Until we have similar participation from hunters in Utah, we're really not going to know even how effective our program is," she said. "The bird could eat in Arizona one week and then in Utah the next."

-- Associated Press

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Photo: Two California condors (not among those that died of lead poisoning) perch along the south rim of the Grand Canyon in 2004. Credit: Chad Olson / Associated Press

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